August 27, 2010

For Bone fans holding out for new content, Jeff Smith’s Bone: Tall Tales (Graphix) is largely a disappointment. About half of it is a colorized version of the antic Big Johnson Bone story that comprised half of Smith’s 2000 trade Stupid, Stupid Rat-Tails. The rest is a few disconnected short stories, including “Powers That Be,” an extended Smith-scripted gag that has Fone Bone and Phoney following a treasure map into various problems; this story appeared in Disney Adventures and a couple of previous Bone anthologies. There’s some new material, but it’s short and lightweight. In the frame story, Smiley takes three Bone kids and the baby rat creature Bartleby on a camping trip, and tells them the two previously published stories, plus two more Big Johnson Bone tall tales—one about his birth, and another about an eating contest with a disappointing ending. Both stories were illustrated by Smith and written by Tom Sniegoski, who also scripted Stupid, Stupid Rat-Tails, and who brings an enjoyably bantery tone to Smith’s world, but doesn’t have Smith’s comic touch or timing, much less his sense of the epic. Smith’s work feels like classic Looney Tunes mixed with a sprawling fantasy; Sniegoski’s is more like a screwball comedy, with people chattering away at cross purposes, and a lot of goofy action. Tall Tales is an enjoyable enough book, and the coloring is marvelous, but that’s just going to make things harder on Bone completists trying to decide whether to buy this material a second time. At least the book’s short preview of the upcoming Bone prose books written by Sniegoski and illustrated by Smith is an interesting addition… B-

The graphic novel Syndrome (Archaia) purports to cross The Truman Show with Seven, but it does so in a fairly baffling way. Writers Daniel Quantz and R.J. Ryan bring in an admirable character specificity, and their focus on realistic dialogue thoroughly grounds their story about a therapist who creates a vast, heavily monitored Truman Show-like fake town where he can study captured sociopaths without them knowing and tailoring their responses to his expectations. But the story gets so distracted with rabbit trails that its main path leads nowhere. Quantz and Ryan spend page after page establishing up minor characters like a struggling actress who gets a gig in the town, the designer who builds it, the man who funds it, and even some wannabes who want to be involved, but get turned down. So it’s pretty startling when the whole thing abruptly ends without pulling these storylines together, finding relevance in most of them, or reaching any conclusions about any of the questions it raises. Artist David Marquez seems similarly confused about the book’s intentions, as he piles on environmental details and again gives the book an immersive, believable specificity, while still giving everyone extra-long torsos and exaggerated sexual physiques, particularly the round-assed, big-breasted women. The plasticky art suggests a serious concern for a serious subject, but the blood, nudity, and gore suggest an exploitation comic, and the hitting-a-brick-wall-at-60-mph ending suggests a potentially sophisticated, daring book that wrapped up 50 pages too early. Meanwhile, the partially dissected, glossy baby-doll on the cover suggests a book of pop-art advertising more than a movie-influenced comic… C+

The third arc of Joe Hill’s ongoing horror-fantasy Locke & Key gets collected in the hardcover Crown Of Shadows (IDW), which has some of the same potential conflicts—many highly detailed characters, a lot of plotlines, art that’s simultaneously cartoony and realistic, an intellectual bent on one side and a lot of gore on the other—but it uses them all to fantastic ends. Hill, the horror novelist behind Horns and Heart-Shaped Box, has built a fantasy world full of dreamlike surrealism in Locke & Key, but he and artist Gabriel Rodriguez lock it all down with a lot of detailed specifics that give his characters heft. The story sounds a bit like a young-adult novel: After their father is murdered, three siblings and their increasingly unstable alcoholic mother relocate to Keyhouse, an old family estate full of keys with hidden magical abilities. Stalked by a mysterious, shape-changing, gender-switching being that’s looking for one specific key—and befriended by that same being, in one of its many disguises—they continue learning about Keyhouse as their mother disintegrates emotionally. A lot goes on in each issue of Locke & Key—each six-issue miniseries breaks down into a bunch of sterling short stories—but Crown Of Shadows centers on the titular item, a key-based crown that lets the series antagonist command shadows and turn them into tangible, protean, vicious servants. While the resulting action sequence is extremely well-managed and exciting, the book’s smaller stories are even stronger, particularly one where the middle child, Kinsey, rebelliously falls in with an outré crowd at school, participates in a dangerous stunt that nearly kills her, and spends some time calmly contemplating her very limited future. Thoughtful sequences like this; Hill’s patient, knotty writing in general; and Rodriguez’s outright nightmarish images make this a nearly unbeatable series. It enters its fourth arc with Locke & Key: Keys To The Kingdom #1 this month, and while the story in that issue is tremendously striking, it’s wrapped in a dubious art experiment that alternates pages of the usual chunky detail with pages of much simpler, cartoonier art. There’s purpose behind the art choice, but it’s still not always appropriate to the seriousness of the content, and it isn’t nearly as attractive or weighty… Crown: A-; Kingdom #1: B

In 1918 and ‘19, New Orleans was terrorized by a fiend who broke into the homes of Italian grocers and bashed them about the head with their own axes. Rick Geary’s The Terrible Axe-Man Of New Orleans (NBM/ComicsLit) is the latest outstanding installment of his A Treasury Of XXth Century Murder series, and it follows his usual method of assembling the lurid details of the case with a combination of ironic detachment and genuine horror. But Geary explores the milieu of these murders a lot more thoroughly than usual, beginning with a chapter that tells the history of New Orleans and the blended cultural origins of jazz. The crimes themselves are odd; they remain more or less unsolved, and though one strong suspect did emerge, it was only after he himself was murdered, so he couldn’t answer questions about whether he was working for the mafia, or how he snuck into houses through the small openings he created for himself. So Geary implies that a little New Orleans voodoo might have been afoot—or perhaps that the city’s citizens, in the spirit of jazz, picked up the melody from one murder and improvised… A- 
 

Another Big Easy crime story—albeit with the contemporary backdrop of Hurricane Katrina—is Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story (Vertigo). Written by novelist Mat Johnson, whose previous work for Vertigo includes Hellblazer: Papa Midnite and the Jim Crow-era noir Incognegro, Dark Rain starts out with a simple heist caper undertaken in the wake of Katrina. As the plan goes predictably awry, Johnson tackles and juggles—mostly successfully—everything from race relations to economic disparity to the psychology of the looter, all from multiple angles. At times, his dialogue verges on wooden; even while literally holding back the floodwater with their bare hands, his characters find time to exchange reams of exposition. The Vinyl Underground alumnus Simon Gane keeps things moving, though, with sharp storytelling and an unfussy flow, though Lee Loughridge’s monotonous grayscale renders the book’s atmosphere more drab than dramatic. But overall, Johnson convincingly, evocatively frames the dilemma: When the levees break and the tide is rising, does robbing a bank that’s halfway underwater really amount to a victimless crime? He answers it, satisfyingly and assuredly, while maintaining the scope and depth of a prose novel… B+

Noted mini-comics creator Will Dinski makes his graphic-novel debut with Fingerprints (Top Shelf)—and while the concept is sound, Dinski never gets a firm grasp on it. The story centers around the invention of a mass-produced Face Augmentor that allows people to easily alter themselves to look like their favorite movie stars, but that idea is introduced way too late in the book, and only after page upon interminable page of dull, charmless meandering. Dinski’s art doesn’t help: Jerky, stiff, stilted, and interspersed with dead spots of emptiness and silence that feel more tedious than profound, his layouts are at best awkward, at worst confusing. And his unfortunate narrative experiment—alternating traditional word balloons with free-floating panels of lifeless dialogue, seemingly at random—just adds to the disconnected vibe and overall sense of jumble. Somehow cluttered and skimpy at the same time, Fingerprints lampoons Hollywood banality and celebrity culture in ways that come off as even more hollow and shallow than its targets… C-

The ultimate fate of Silver Agent (previously only seen in a dramatic-looking memorial statue with the intriguing inscription “To Our Eternal Shame”) has long been one of the best-kept secrets of the Astro City universe, so there was naturally a great deal of excitement when it was announced it would finally be revealed in a miniseries this summer. Astro City: Silver Agent (Wildstorm), manages to bring the question to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, but not without cost: The decision to cram the whole story into two issues sometimes makes it feel cramped and busy, especially in light of the fact that it’s a complex, wide-ranging tale featuring travel through both space and time. This is also problematic in the first issue, which, because of its cosmic elements, takes us away from the familiar Astro City milieu that’s behind the entire series’ charm. This is rectified in issue #2, which reveals much that fans wanted to know about the entire city’s mythos and Silver Agent in particular, but it’s a bumpier ride than expected… B

Stan Sakai supplies an equally unusual bumpy ride in Usagi Yojimbo: Return Of The Black Soul (Dark Horse), the 24th volume in the ongoing series about the ronin rabbit and his come-and-go companions in Edo-era Japan. As with so many long-running series, it’s hard to find an ideal entryway into the Usagi Yojimbo world; while many issues of Sakai’s comic are accessible, winning stand-alone stories, his world and cast have been developing since 1987, and his stories often draw on his rich past history. But Black Soul requires far more past knowledge of the series than usual, and the timeline in this book is confusing due to too many characters who look alike and wind up in similar situations. It all revolves around one character hosting a recurring-character evil spirit called Jei, and others who have been possessed recently, and a bargain made with dark gods for a child’s life. The hunt for Jei’s latest host also brings in an unusually large group of Sakai’s recurring characters, including bounty hunters Gen, Stray Dog, and Isamu, and much of the book centers on their complicated relationships with Usagi and each other. As always, Sakai’s draftsmanship and composition are superb, his storytelling is touching, and his action scenes are gripping, but this installment feels muddled and almost inconsequential, since it basically just sees the unkillable Jei trading one host for another and moving on yet again… B-

When The Doom Patrol debuted in My Greatest Adventure #80 in 1963, the release of X-Men #1 was still three months away. Both books featured teams of misunderstood, misfit superheroes led by a wheelchair-bound genius—but the debate about whether Stan Lee somehow swiped the concept from Doom Patrol creator Arnold Drake is purely academic at this point. History has chosen the victor—which makes revisiting the second and final volume of Showcase Presents: The Doom Patrol (DC), out now in paperback, all the more poignant. The collection’s final chapter features one of the most iconic images in superhero-comics history: After a few dozen tales full of outlandish supervillains, internecine tension, and odd topical references that include Krishna and Alfred E. Newman, Arnold kills off The Doom Patrol in a fiery blast, one in which the usually divided team holds hands and defiantly chooses to sacrifice their lives together in order to save humanity—a humanity that had always eluded them. It set a weird, grim tone for the numerous Doom Patrol revamps to follow, most notably Grant Morrison’s surreal version in the early ’90, but the freewheeling, even fun-loving edge of Arnold’s tragic yet madcap heroes that’s wholly reflective of its late-’60s context: that is, a country growing simultaneously brighter and darker. Illustrated with smooth, stylish, kinetic draftsmanship by the underappreciated Bruno Premiani, The Doom Patrol is perfectly poised between Silver Age camp and Bronze Age angst…A-

One of the most galvanizing figures in comics history, the notoriously reclusive Steve Ditko, played a huge part in the early development of Marvel Comics, co-creating Spider-Man with Stan Lee and bringing his astounding sense of movement and imaginative visual flair to Dr. Strange. Big Book O’ Ditko (Pure Imagination) serves largely to show that, like the equally legendary Jack Kirby, Ditko didn’t spring fully formed out of nowhere. The book collects some of Ditko’s earliest work from late-’50s science-fiction titles like Strange Suspense Stories, Space Adventures, and even a Get Smart comic adaptation. None of this stuff is essential, and some of it is pretty abysmal, at least in terms of the writing. But for Ditko fans and people interested in the years just before the big Marvel revolution of the early ’60s, it’s worth a look… B-

Is it possible to get a restraining order to keep a writer from his own material? Steve Niles’ 30 Days Of Night was a mediocre genre riff about a group of vampires assaulting a small Alaskan town where the sun doesn’t shine for, oh, about a month or so each winter. Since the miniseries was first published in 2002, the original comic has inspired a dozen or more spin-offs, sequels, and inexplicable mash-ups (30 Days Of Night: Dead Space, anyone?), with Niles working on nearly all of them. His latest effort, co-written by Adam Jones, seems determined to prove just how little blood one can squeeze from the same stone. The X-Files/30 Days Of Night #1 (IDW/Wildstorm) has Mulder and Scully called in to investigate a gruesome mass murder in the snow-strewn north. While a vampire killing spree is as logical a place as any to stick the two FBI agents, it’s hard to understand what kind of excitement readers are supposed to find here. The X-Files hasn’t had a comic since the last movie came out, and apart from the randomness of combining a property decades past its cultural relevancy with another property well onto its 16th minute of fame, there’s no draw beyond the same old tired beats. Tom Mandrake’s art is convincingly gory and not much else, and it’s hard to get too excited by the issue’s shocking conclusion. Prediction: in the issues to come, Mulder will rail about aliens, Scully will play peacemaker, both will make it through the crisis unscathed but without any proof of the existence of the supernatural. Ah well, at least they got Scully’s hair color right… C

The 12-year-old webcomic Penny Arcade has never been afraid of the niche market. Written and illustrated by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik (and starring their avatars, Tycho and Gabe, respectively), Penny Arcade does broad, biting slapstick, social satire, and flights of fancy with equal aplomb. But one of the running criticisms of the strip is that its punchlines can be esoteric, requiring knowledge about videogame trivia that only acolytes might be expected to have at their fingertips. Penny Arcade 6: The Halls Below (Del Rey), a full collection of the previously web-only 2005 strips, makes an effort to clear up some of the confusion, with Holkins (who does the bulk of the duo’s scripting) annotating each individual comic with backstory, musings, or in some cases, abject apologies. It isn’t entirely effective—there are a few nods to games so long forgotten that even Holkins admits he isn’t sure who was being mocked. But Arcade has such a strong viewpoint and central dynamic that readers don’t need to be that well-versed in electronic ephemera to get the laugh lines. (The Fruit-Fucker alone deserves a place in the Never Not Funny Hall Of Fame.) All of Halls Below’s strips are still readily available online, but it’s nice to have them in convenient book form, with the new notes, plus a few surprises… B+ 

Hellboy comics get a lot of mileage out of contrasting eerie, otherworldly mythos against Hellboy’s prosaic response; he’s a big red demon-looking dude who believes in shooting the bad guys and helping the good ones. Abe Sapien, Hellboy’s merman co-worker at the B.P.R.D., has a more reasoned approach. In the two-part Abe Sapien: The Abyssal Plain (Dark Horse Comics), Abe investigates a sunken Russian submarine in pursuit of a holy artifact; he finds what he’s looking for, and of course, something extra. Plain is notable for how low-key it is. The story, by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi, stays mostly in one place, and the potential consequences aren’t earth-shaking. What’s most compelling here is the aquatic hero’s measured approach to a potentially terrifying situation, and how well that approach works to resolve the situation. Peter Snejbjerg’s art is grotesque and haunting by turns, especially in issue #2, and the cumulative effect of the issues is to make a minor curiosity of a tale slightly more resonant than it had any real right to be. This could’ve been told in a one-shot without too much difficulty, and it lacks the punch of Mignola’s best work. But it’s always nice to see Abe carefully stepping out on his own… B 

It’s usually isn’t a good sign when a comic has no listed author or illustrator, but Uncle Scrooge: Around The World In 80 Bucks (BOOM!)—credited only to Italy’s Francesc Bargada Studio and Staff di If—is a Duck adventure almost worthy of Carl Barks and Don Rosa, though not as beautifully drawn as either creator’s work. The story begins with Scrooge McDuck betting his Billionaire’s Club rival John D. Rockerduck that he can circumnavigate the globe, with his nephew Donald by his side, for less than $80. What follows are a series of clever Scrooge schemes to travel for free, while Rockerduck’s lackey tries to find ways to force Scrooge to open his wallet. It’s a great, globe-hopping premise in the classic Uncle Scrooge style, and the nameless writers and artists who worked on the book don’t botch it. Again and again they paint Scrooge and Donald into corners, and find neat ways to get them out… B+ 

Actor Thomas Jane of Hung and Punisher semi-fame and scribe Todd Farmer of Jason X semi-infamy moonlight as comic-book honchos for Raw Entertainment, which just released the collected Alien Pig Farm 3000, a riff on The Dukes Of Hazzard and space-opera silliness with a hearty slab of cheesecake on the side. Brothers Elvis and Johnny Ray are busy careering across state lines, moonshine in tow, when they unearth an enormous alien spacecraft, the occupants of which quickly revive and begin melting the various Deep South denizens of Horton County, Kentucky—all of whom fall somewhere along the hillbilly-stereotype spectrum. The gags are insufferably lame and the characters are dime-thin—aside from some non-blood-relative incest milked for laughs—but at least Don Marquez’s art hits the right Mars Attacks vibe, and as far as ultra-dumb fun goes, APF3000 isn’t half bad… C 

Four Eyes Vol. 1: Forged In Flames (Image) is a touching, troubling Joe Kelly tale about a steely-eyed youngster tossed into the deep end of adult drama that recalls his incredible work on I Kill Giants. This time the action is set in Depression-era New York and centers around “the sport of emperors”—a methane-enriched duel-to-the-death between dragons that aren’t mythical beings by any stretch. When Enrico’s family enjoys a sudden windfall followed by a crushing loss, it’s up to him to explore the seamy world of his father’s profession and bring back the rent money, even if that means closing himself off from his mother, whose coping mechanism is talking out of both sides of her mouth, and whose long-term plan is taking in an abusive boarder. Max Fiumara’s vision of New York is roughhewn, a succession of smokestacks and factory floors, and his characters—even the hard-bitten ones—are sinewy and elastic, a marked improvement on the more realistic style he employed on Warren Ellis’ Blackgas. Four Eyes is an excellent read, and one that’s bound to become even more thrilling as Enrico takes his first tentative steps into the ring. A warning, though—it’s taken two years for Kelly and Fiumara to produce the four issues that went into this initial compilation, so this story doesn’t seem likely to progress with any speed.  A-

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